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Letters to a Young Manager

The Big Umbrella, #162
LTYM > Strategy

Dear Sophie,
It's good to hear you describe the strategy process you are going through. This is so important to do every few years. It's a good exercise to check on your direction, see if the destination has changed, and make some mid-course corrections. If world around you is changing, it's important to change with it, or if you're lucky, to change in advance of it! But the change you want doesn't happen without a change in focus. And that means learning to say 'no' to the things that will divert you or hold you back. Saying 'no' is not as easy as it sounds.

I'm reminded of a rainy day in downtown Manhattan twenty years ago, when the World Trade Center was still standing. During a storm, the wind would whip down the Hudson River and make a turn at the Twin Towers, much like a stream eddies around a boulder. For those of us commuting to work on the PATH trains from New Jersey, exiting the Trade Center meant running a gauntlet of people, taxis and weather. While umbrellas were the preferred protection against the elements for the Wall Street workers, they were rarely up to the task of braving the wind tunnel coming around those towers. We called the plaza on the way from the Trade Center doors to Trinity Place the umbrella graveyard. No matter the design of the umbrella, most were quickly turned inside-out, fabric ripped and spindles dangling--especially the big ones. Most of the garbage bins around the plaza were stuffed with their remnants. The only way to make it through the storm with your umbrella intact was by closing in down halfway and holding on to the spool to which the spindles were attached. By making the umbrella smaller in this fashion--keeping it close to your head--you could stay dry and keep your umbrella from turning inside out and blowing apart.

A good strategy is like that umbrella. Keeping it narrow and focusing on some tight goals and objectives means you reach your destination with a clear, dry head. Think about that. The tendency in many strategy discussions is how to be inclusive of all the good ideas that get generated--making the umbrella big. But it is exactly the opposite that's needed, keeping it small and narrow, and shutting out all that keeps you from achieving your goal--by saying 'no.'

Remember this story; all the big umbrellas were turned inside-out. The only way to have your umbrella survive, and stay dry, was to make your umbrella small. Otherwise, it was blown away. It's the same for strategy: too big, and we are blown away by the enormity of the challenge. If our objective is to reach our destination, to weather the storms, and arrive dry, then we need to narrow our umbrella. Visions should be big and broad; strategies should be small and focused.



Big vision, small strategy

Discussion Questions:

1) Have you had the experience of having your strategy grow with each discussion? How about the scope of your projects growing? How would you say "no" in these situations and still provide good service?
2) Brainstorm with a small group of colleagues and friends to see how many ways you can constructively say "no."
3) What's missing from this exercise? Are some decision rules needed first? What else?

For Further Reading:

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